?oku:Â The Inner Chamber, Vol. 2;Â Fumi Yoshinaga;Â Viz; 200 pp., $12.99; B&W, Softcover; ISBN: 9781421527482
I continue to be baffled by the bland critical reception to Fumi Yoshinagaâs ?oku. The most recent review Iâve seen, for example, is Johanna Draper Carlsonâs, where she says the book has âthe potential to make fans of even more manga readers,â and praises the âconvenient fantasy layer,â which she says âinsulate[s] the readerâ from the painful aspects of the story.
Not that thatâs not a valid response butâ¦am I the only one who thinks this is a work of fucking genius? And a brutal work of genius at that. Certainly, I didnât feel insulated; on the contrary, to me the story, shot through with abuse, murder, and pain, was ruthless in a way that makes both âviolentâ Western mainstream titles and âhonestâ Western autobio exercises seem more than a little ridiculous.
Each volume of ?oku tells a different story set in an alternate-past Japan, where a 17th century plague killed most of the young men. The main character in this second book is Arikoto, a Buddhist abbott. When he comes to pay his respects to the ruling Tokugawa clan, his unusual beauty catches the eye of the shogunâs foster-mother, Lady Kasuga. She kidnaps him and forces him to become a catamite for the shogun, spending the rest of his life in the Ooku, or inner chamber â the shogunâs seraglio.
The suggestion of scads of pretty men waiting to be raped suggests a kind of yaoi fever dream. But though Yoshinaga is certainly capable of enjoying that sort of thing (see her series Gerard and Jacques), her goals here are somewhat different. The world of the ?oku isnât a gay goof; it is, rather, almost unspeakably cruel. Lady Kasuga is one of the most terrifying characters Iâve read in fiction â she kills with neither fanfare nor compunction. Her quietly lip-smacking amusement after one heinous deed â captured in Yoshinagaâs deft, sparse linesâ is positively diabolical.
Which isnât to say that Kasugaâs the villain exactly; Yoshinaga is too subtle a writer to break things into good guys and bad guys. One of the most sympathetic character in the book commits a murder as cold-blooded as any of Kasugaâs. And Kasugaâs cruelty, for that matter, comes out of her love for the shogun and for the country. The volume opens with a scene that shows her almost crippling grief at the loss of her foster-son. Again, Yoshinaga is a master of facial expression; Kasuga is placed dead center in the panel, eyes staring, mouth open â she looks as if sheâs just seen the end of the world.
You might think that the point here is to humanize Kasuga; to show that underneath her cruel exterior is human emotion â or, perhaps, to show that her cruelty is born out of pain. But Yoshinaga takes neither tack. She does suggest, in a lovely sequence, that hurting others because you yourself are hurt is shamefulâ¦but she never judges Kasuga, or, indeed, any of her characters. A land where plagues ravage people, and the powerful murder the weak, and the innocent suffer â and, for that matter, inflict suffering â isnât really a just place, after all. The best you can hope for here, Yoshinaga seems to say, is mercy and, if youâre very lucky, perhaps love. Thatâs not so different from our world, of course, which is why, for all its period trappings and âthousâ and fake history, Ooku feels more familiar than foreign, and not much like fantasy at all.
For those interested, my review of the first volume of OokuÂ is here.